With the myriad of restaurants offering exciting fine dining options in London and beyond, one need never eat at the same place twice. However, when one of my favourite restaurants was awarded a Michelin star then invited me to write about them again, I was quick to accept. Located at The Halkin by COMO in Belgravia, Ametsa with Arzak Instruction is a concept imported from the town of San Sebastian, where the Arzak family run their eponymous, three Michelin starred restaurant serving modern creations based on local Basque cuisine. Our last visit was a lively sensory adventure along the border of the deliciously unusual. My only misgiving was that I had already used the title ‘back to Basque’ in the first article.
Executive Head Chef Sergi Sanz regularly changes the menu to make the most of seasonal ingredients. A quick perusal of the suggested tasting menu told me that only one item still remained the same – a crunchy kataifi nest surrounding a scorpion fishcake on a long lollipop stick. The first four plates, including the scorpion fish, are presented together, to be eaten in a specific order. Assistant restaurant manager, Ednor, selected our wines, pairing each course with a Spanish wine; in the case of our aperitivos, this was a Zuleta sherry that was sweet and floral on the nose, dry on the palate and strong enough to ensure we started dinner with a smile.
Arranged at varying heights and in various vessels, there is as much feasting to be done with the eyes as with the mouth; the collection of dainty dishes, all presented differently recall to mind the decorative mobiles of early childhood. The aperitivos continued with wafer-like cylinders filled with flavoured ham cream – one coloured with turmeric and one with paprika. These were presented in test tubes and had to be tipped out to be enjoyed, rather like the way a single cigar might be removed from its packaging. Moving on, there was a sardine doughnut with fluffy interior, flavoured with black olive and truffle cream, resting on a stainless steel plinth, as well as a mango and black pudding parcel which arrived on the base of a crushed aluminium can.
Dinner is always better with a side of the unexpected and Ametsa with Arzak Instruction gives little away. The tasting menu featured two starters, both with similarly inscrutable names. ‘Scallops leaving the home’ were perfectly seared with an quirky prune and paprika sauce on top and striking stripes of mossy green plankton paint and blood-red paprika paint underneath. No mention of the tiny nuggets of Basque chilli jelly was made on the menu and, while I thought this surprise was just right to ignite the molasses-sweet sauce on the dish, I expect some less chilli-loving fellow diners might find their mouths rather too tingly. The accompanying wine, a dry Gaintza Getariako Txakolina, was on hand to quench any flames, with cooling citrus notes and a light natural sparkle.
The second starter was ‘langoustine crunchy-crepe’, another mysterious appellation that belied the complex flavours of the dish. Two crescents of juicy langoustine tail were served with a clear gel, orange blossom sauce and a bright green crisp with curling tendrils that looked as though the world’s smallest kraken was attempting to massage the shellfish into further tenderness. One of my favourite things about Ametsa with Arzak Instruction is the vibrant and colourful nature of the dishes, but we were ready for something earthier by the time we moved on to the fish course.
Nothing compares to the spectacle of a cloche-covered dish, revealed at the table to contain billowing and heady smoke that pours across your place setting as though it’s the very doorstep of hell. The ‘tuna with cinnamon on fire’ was, surprisingly, exactly that. Glowing cinnamon sticks were removed after their smoke had done its work on our taste buds and we were left with sizeable hunks of lightly seared tuna, deep red inside, with a paper-thin leaf of cinnamon bark and a trail of the powdered spice mixed with salt. I had been wary of the combination when I had first seen it on the menu as I feared a Christmas crime against my favourite fish. However, the warming spice was allowed to work its exotic magic and the overall flavour was clean and salty, even with the festive addition of apple. We loved the wine pairing too, a white rioja imported for the restaurant from Bodegas Tierra de Agrícola Labastida with minimal oak from a brief four months in the barrel and a summer fruit tang.
The meat dish suggested as part of the tasting menu had originally been pork but, since neither of us are particularly keen on pork, Ednor was happy to accommodate ,our preference and we opted for grouse instead. The sliced breast and confit leg were served, rare and juicy, on a swirling canvas of three different sauces: a deep red grouse jus; a bright purple, which tasted of turnip; and an orange sauce, flavoured with pumpkin and carrot. Pomegranate seeds completed the dish, bursting like tiny globes of flavour in the mouth, and the crispy grouse skin added a textural dimension. The wine was probably our favourite of the night, a biodynamic Olivastro 2010 Bobal that was fruity and elegant.
Although we had already witnessed the ominously titled ‘big truffle’ dessert heading to other tables, we felt a cheeky cheese course was required and tried a selection of cheeses alongside a 22 year old Pedro Ximinez Alvear 1927 that looked like brown sugar syrup and tasted like fruit cake. One of the cheeses, a creamy quenelle that sat on an oaty cracker, was particularly good, if deceptively strong, and matched the sherry perfectly.
The moment had come for the ‘big truffle’, a puffball creation (about the size of a big man’s fist) that was coated in unsweetened cocoa, filled with candyfloss and honeycomb pieces, and was anointed with hot chocolate and Cointreau sauce at the table. Melting into itself, the truffle formed a rich chocolate cream that was wonderfully decadent, accompanied by a light and sweet Viña Axarkia Maestro. We ended the evening with the obligatory espresso martinis (23 year old Zacapa rum, of course, not vodka) and left with a spring still in our step, firmly within the elusive window of contentment that comes prior to being completely and unglamorously stuffed.
Excellent service continues to be a standard and the food is worth at least the Michelin that they have, if not more. It was a pleasure to return to Ametsa with Arzak Instruction after three years and have another culinary adventure through their exciting and innovative menu. I’ll be back again, but I probably won’t be able to wait so long this time…
Ametsa with Arzak Instruction
COMO The Halkin
London SW1X 7DJ